What is perfect?
The days following last weekends wreck of an event were spent in a bipolar state of emotions. I was bummed with Nixon for getting eliminated, proud of myself for at least attempting to compete, worried about a dear friend who had had a rough fall on XC day and had taken a trip to the hospital in the back of an ambulance, enraged by comments about the state of eventing after a horse passed away on course, and resolved to find a way to fix my own errors.
During this time, so many people reached out to me to ask about my plan of attack. What would be my next show? My next event? My strategy to instantaneously fix my problems. And I had no answers. It isn’t that I didn’t want to compete again, or that I didn’t acknowledge that I needed to – it is that as a graduate student, I truly and honestly could not afford it.
The Monday following the event the boys got the day off. They also got their shoes reset, setting me back hundreds of dollars. During this time, my farrier noted that Nixon felt tight in his hind end, leading to calls to the chiropractor to adjust. My trucks gas was refilled, and my board was paid. Groceries were bought, and books on equine reproduction were purchased. And with all of that, my bank account became null in void.
Because I was only able to compete in Spring Bay HT for two reasons – I somehow had won $100 the previous weekend in Jockey Club TIP awards, and my boyfriend fronted the money to me. The $100 paid part of my half of the entry fee, as this particularly amazing boyfriend also owns half of Nixon – and we split all of his expenses 50/50. But that was the end of the show fund pot.
So, uncertain of my future and how to fix my issues, I resolutely began just hacking again. Playing with bits, playing with tools that I knew I had in my repertoire. I reread the story on ESPN that I come back to constantly, and remembered what had gotten this horses brain to come as far as it had come – meandering. So trail ride we did.
But then Wednesday night I was contacted by a girl who I used to board with – Daina Kaugars. She asked if I would be willing to fill a spot in her upcoming clinic with the one and only Sinead Halpin – a rider that I have always looked up to and respect immensely. I stared at my bank account, juggled integers in my mind as I tried to figure out if I just scrapped the next show I wanted to do, and maybe didn’t eat any protein for the next two months, I could possibly, probably, maybe afford to clinic.
So I signed up, said a prayer to the Horse God’s that she was as good a clinician as she was a rider, and penciled it in for Sunday at 8am. I got placed in the novice group – because, ya know, thats what most people do after getting eliminated at beginner novice.
I showed up on Sunday with a churning stomach and trembling hands. I introduced Sinead to Nixon, letting her know of our previous issues – primarily that he switches from chicken shit to freight train with a flip of a quick switch, and that I am usually under-prepared for that moment.
We started very small with a placement pole 4 strides into a bounce pole to a double crossrail, and I forced myself to do something that I have never done before – I asked Sinead to drop the second crossrail and let me just pop over one the first time. I told her that I had promised Nixon after one particularly bad warm up that I would become not just his rider – but his advocate. There are many better riders than me, and certainly better horse trainers, but no one knows the inner workings of my horses brain like I do. I knew that seeing a strange cross rail oxer as his first fence- something he had never seen before – would not only perplex him, but possibly effect the rest of our ride. But I was pleased to see that Sinead was happy to do exactly that, and we were able to begin our ride with a good start and a happy horse.
The exercise grew higher and higher, with Nixon stepping up to the plate each time, amounting in us jumping the largest fence he has ever seen.
Sinead commented on my crumpled left side, and my overreaction over fences – and I just had to laugh, acknowledging that I had been struggling with these two feats for probably 20 years. But she gave constructive criticism for each, and I felt myself stretching my right side and sitting a bit higher as the lesson went on. And as she taught, I happily realized that my horse had showed up on this particular day, allowing me to work on myself, and not just him.
As we moved onto coursework, Nixon became more looky, stopping at a crossrail after having popped over a 3’3 oxer like it was nothing. The perfectionist in me cringed, but the consummate student was pleased to find Sinead unphased, and the fellow riders and auditors supportive. Nixon eventually reactivated his brain, shockingly at the same time that I renewed my rider’s card, and we eventually popped over the coursework in sync. A feat that I was quite thrilled with – seemingly fitting in with the other novice horses on my sweet baby of a horse.
And as I walked back to my trailer, I acknowledged that the lesson hadn’t gone perfectly – but was that the goal? We ride with these greats in order to fix our issues, not to brag on our accomplishments. Had Nixon been foot perfect the entire time, the money that I had scrounged up and the Ramen that I had purchased for the next two weeks would have been for nothing. Instead, he and I both showed our insecurities and issues, and Sinead walked us through with strategies, exercises, and training tools to better them. And at the end of the 90 minutes, we weren’t perfect – but we were better.
More importantly, I walked away with a smile. Daina of DK Equine organized a beautiful clinic – with the key word being organized. It ran smoothly, it was on time, and the setting of Antebellum Farm was beautiful. The riders were kept informed throughout the process, and it was a stress-free and encouraging environment.
And I realize that the money I spent will not help my record immediately. I didn’t win a $3 ribbon or earn a snazzy trophy. But I have now realized that for me, I don’t seem to crave the same end goals as others. Do I want to move up the levels? Sure. But schooling those levels is just as fun as competing at them.
But indirectly, this money is so well spent. For each singular effective lesson will impact hundreds of events down the road. Each exercise building on the very ground in which we lay our training. And each training ride either improving or hindering our minds and bodies at the competitions. For if I have learned anything, it is that practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent.
So lets ride with the best, learn from the greats. Make permanent the good skills and remove the bad habits. Absorb every ounce of knowledge that we can. Because, the most important thing that I have learned is not the ability to win – but the ability to improve. To become the best rider I can be. I hope that this lesson got me one step closer to that – and to be honest, I think it did.